Why TED Matters

7 minute read

Many folks are familiar with TED talks. TED stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design” and is a conference series that was the brainchild of Richard Saul Wurman, who began TED in 1984. In 2001, TED was acquired by Chris Anderson, who oversees all of the TED conferences today and acts as the curator for the thousands of TED talks that can be viewed at TED.com.

I recently attended a special TED@Intel event, in the process becoming more aware of TED and its mission, goals and unique format. Speakers at TED events have a maximum of 18 minutes to share their messages, which are delivered in highly polished, succinct speeches. The mission is to inspire, challenge, and be thought provoking and, in some cases, to evoke awe and wonder.

So when the opportunity to request an invite to attend this year’s TED conference — which happened to be its 30th anniversary — came across my desk, I jumped at it. In the past, they’ve accepted 1,500 people for the main conference held in Vancouver, B.C. each year, but this year they reduced the number of attendees to 1,200. That meant that all attendees had to be pre-screened and accepted. I passed muster and was one of the 1,200 invited to Vancouver last week.

One thing that became clear to me while attending TED was that to really get the most out of the big TED conference, any attendee had to have a pretty good working knowledge of math, science, medicine, architecture, economics, geography, education, literature, law, history, technology and politics. This pretty much explains why almost all who attend the conference are highly educated. Most are world travelers who have seen the world — both the good and bad — in person. They also have to have personalities that are friendly and open to networking, something that is a big part of any TED event.

The conference itself was expensive and almost all who went to TED were relatively well off. This has lead some to suggest that TED is an elitist event, but Anderson contended this is probably the least elitist conference that exists since every TED talk is posted online for free. Those paying to attend the conference make it possible for the folks from TED to actually deliver these talks online at no cost.

My good friend Lise Buyer, a principal at Class V Group, suggested that the folks attending TED might be elite in the same way Navy Seals are elite because of their disciplined training. This analogy became evident as I talked with dozens of people at the TED: pretty much everyone at TED were what I would call overachievers.

Many were doctors, lawyers, physicists, scientists, authors, movie stars, educators, or captains of industry, and while each were at the top of their field, they all had other important things they wanted to do with their lives. This included things like working on world problems, climate change issues, philanthropy, social injustice, education and governmental reform, efficiently feeding the planet, diagnosing infectious deceases and providing vaccines.

What is most interesting to me was that as I talked to these people about these big issues, I realized that all of them had the money and influence to actually force change in the world, and they each felt passionate enough to support one of these big issues. This is one of the big reason’s TED matters. Through these TED talks, audiences are exposed to speakers who are doing cutting edge work across numerous causes. The speakers often demonstrate constructive ways that people can help with these causes on a personal level.

For many speakers, TED matters a lot. Salman Khan — founder of Khan Academy, whose goal is to bring free, world-class online education to everyone in the world — told us that before his TED speech, his site had drawn only 6.9 million students. After TED, interest and demand in the courses grew like wildfire: Today, more than 140 million students take these courses online, and the site is growing by 10 million new students each month. Speaker after speaker in the afternoon TED All-Star sessions — which were 4 minute speeches from past TED speakers — told us about how their lives and causes were impacted dramatically for the better after their TED speeches.

Perhaps the biggest reason TED matters is the actual impact it has had on millions of lives — especially over the past eight years since TED talks have been posted online for free. TED organizers said they’ve received thousands of letters and emails from people telling them how one or more TED talks have impacted their lives for the better. While the attendees of last week’s TED conference got to see all of the speakers in person, all of these speeches will find their way onto TED.com over the next few months.

In fact, two TED speeches of major importance to the world are already online.

One from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden:

And a rebuttal to Snowden’s talk from Richard Ledgett, Deputy Director of the NSA:

Another one that really challenged my thinking was from a supermodel named Geena Rocero, who gave an impassioned talk about equality for transgender individuals. As a techie, the talk that will have the most serious impact on my work and thinking came from Bran Ferren, co-founder of Applied Minds. Anyone interested in the future impact of technology on our cities needs to read how he sees the driverless car being a catalyst for major changes.

I also loved Nicholas Negroponte’s speech that chronicled his many talks since the first TED conference, showing how many of his predictions turned out to be right on the money. In his session he made one rather startling future prediction. “My prediction is that we are going to ingest information,” said Negroponte. “We’re going to swallow a pill and know English and swallow a pill and know Shakespeare. It will go through the bloodstream and it will know when it’s in the brain and, in the right places, it deposits the information.”

Here is a list of all the speakers that were at last week’s TED conference. It’s worth bookmarking this page so you can look for these talks when they are posted over the next few months.

TED also matters for the winner of the $1 million TED prize given out each year. This year’s prize winner was Charmian Gooch. According to the entry on TED’s blog:

As head of Global Witness, a UK-based non-profit that has been campaigning for transparency for the last 20 years, Gooch is a long-time champion for human rights. In recent years, she has focused on uncovering the owners of anonymous companies structured that way in order to hide the identity of corrupt politicians and businessmen who use them to loot resource-rich developing countries and move the money through banks around the world. And it isn’t just the corrupt who use these companies to launder money—arms traffickers, drug smugglers, tax evaders and even terrorists use anonymous companies to facilitate their crimes.

As for myself, this year’s TED conference mattered to me in many ways. I live and breathe technology, and because I spend so much time in this discipline, I don’t often have a chance to learn more about the other things in this world that should matter to me beyond technology. My personal passion — one that I have been involved with since 1995 — has been championing the role of the Internet and computers in education, applying it to the learning process in many parts of the world. But this year’s TED really challenged me to re-think my view of the world and how I could make a difference even outside of my field of choice. For me, TED has become a launching point for some interesting soul searching, creating within me a desire to learn more about things that matter outside of my own world.

Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every week on TIME Tech.

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